Cal breakthrough yields cheaper, greener hydrogen

May 9, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A recent report names California the world leader in developing fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fueling stations. Of course, the technology has a champion in Governor Schwarzenegger, but fuel cell cars have a dirty little secret: The hydrogen they use is made from fossil fuel because it's too expensive to make any other way.

A breakthrough at Cal Berkeley promises to change that.

Little bubbles in a beaker on the Cal campus could be the future of transportation. They're hydrogen. Pure hydrogen doesn't appear in nature. One way to make it, we all learned in high school, to run electricity through water.

Oxygen comes out one side and hydrogen the other, but it's only worthwhile if you dope the water with platinum as a source of protons and platinum prices are going through the roof. An ounce of platinum currently trades at $1,650 an ounce. In the past year, it has approached $2,000 an ounce.

Now, there is a new substance that actually works better than platinum and costs a whole lot less. It's based on molybdenum. UC Berkeley chemist Hema Karunadasa says, "This molybdenum metal is about 70 times cheaper than platinum metal."

That's more like $20 an ounce.

Karunadasa developed the new substance with Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long. All hold appointments at Cal and at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and all of them were stunned by the results. Not only does the new method require about the same amount of electricity as the previous method, it can, for the first time, use plain water without any acid additive, even dirty water, even water right out of the ocean.

"It was a surprise to us," says Karunadas. "I like the fact that we can use neutral water and that we can use untreated seawater because seawater is the most abundant source of protons on Earth."

But wait. There's more.

The process is so efficient it holds the promise of hydrogen mass-produced using solar panels and its by-products can be used in construction and industrial chemicals. There's little, if any, waste.

The next step for the team is to refine the material to make it even more efficient and to find a cool name for it. How about molybdi-bubble-um?


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